One of my favorite professors at Brown is James Morone. Prof. Morone’s City Politics and American Culture and the City have fundamentally changed the way I think about American politics. Here’s my take on the story we tell about ourselves.
The major storylines of the American narrative include race, partisanship, immigration, and violence, and they are all rooted in capitalism.
Slavery is a product of capitalism. In the early days, slave owners created accounting to calculate the value of slaves, life insurance to protect their wealth, and plantations to surveil cotton production. This unjust system rippled over the next few centuries.
In today’s winner-take-all capitalism, few people are upwardly mobile. In Strangers in Their Own Land by Arlie Hochschild, we see the rural white blaming immigrants for taking their jobs. Yet in Dear America by Jose Antonio Vargas, we see undocumented immigrants being conditioned to low-wage labor. Each group felt left behind and became hateful of the other groups. This hatred eventually escalated to a divisive society where no group feels good.
Political scientists find that most people vote on how they feel. That is, when they feel good, they would vote for the incumbent. Otherwise, they often vote for the challenger. Let’s see whether this theory holds in the November election.
Deep Story: Race
To change the master narrative, we need to study the deep story behind American society. Let’s start with the story behind race:
Racism has been baked into the culture and history by the Founding Fathers since 1776. Race-based slavery was written in James Madison’s proposal for the American Constitution. For example, the three-fifths clauses of the Constitution incentivized slave owners to build their wealth by owning more slaves. While the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery, it rewrote slavery with criminal code which led to a dramatic increase in incarceration.
Then comes Alexis de Tocqueville. Tocqueville saw the irresistible force of democracy and wrote the first definitive sociology of democracy— Democracy in America. This literature juxtaposed the Constitution with culture and moral values. In addition to his pessimistic take on race, Tocqueville noticed that racial prejudice is stronger where slavery is abolished, and the strongest where slavery has never existed. While this may seem counterintuitive, it is because the southerners could claim their white supremacy to protect their social status.
The early Irish immigrants also realized that claiming whiteness could help them step up their ethnic ladder. They became hostile against black as shown in Gangs of New York. This fear and insecurity eventually escalated to race riots in the North.
In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, we saw how an uneducated kid wrestled with the racial code. Though it seems that race prejudice could be reconciled through spending time together, Huck Finn still felt guilty about breaking the cultural rules of befriending (freed) slaves. Even though slavery was liberated by the Civil War, African Americans did not experience the promise of freedom. They struggled to find a voice until 1890. Even worse, they grew up with inequality, violence, and segregation. As a result, they became increasingly furious with society.
Richard Wright’s awakening story Native Sonshowed that racial oppression is more than systematic prejudice. African Americans were not equipped to interact with other races. Only white folks could easily cross the racial line. While structural racism has led to extreme oppression, Wright created an alarming tale that racism has created a monster of its own. This will not disappear when racism stops. This is the native son.
On the other hand, Toni Morrison added an exhilaration layer in Jazz. Morrison portrayed a city where everyone is liberated. In Harlem, people embrace humanity and sexuality. Aside from people’s exhilaration, it is worth noting that Harlem is isolated from whiteness. When Dorcas was shot, the ambulance didn’t bother to come. When Dorcas’s parents’ houses were burned down, the white authority refused to touch black lives.
While there are many great successes of African Americans, black became synonymous with the underclass in the 1880s and 1890s. This narrative has marginalized many African Americans’ lives. Get out went on to expose the lies about post-racial America with the sunken place. In the end, Rose was finally killed by violent monster acts. This violence resonated with the Native Son.
While society hasn’t reached the post-racial mindset, we have to recognize the progress since Native Son, as more people are aware of the problem. On the other hand, the great black-white binary is shifting towards majority minority (due to generations immigrants).
Deep Story: Partisanship
To understand the dilemma of immigrants, we need to first understand partisanship. The party has changed over the years. During the Lincoln era, no Democrats wanted to free slaves, and Republicans believed all men are equal. Thus, African Americans have been Republicans since the Civil War.
In 1928, African Americans began to come organized and dominated the local scene in the North. While they were recruited by reformed states into the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party was run by white segregationists. In 1932, the African American press voted for FDR. In 1936, they became the majority of the Democratic Party. In 1938, they took over the Democratic Party. In 1946, FDR requested all industries to include African Americans.
During the Clinton era, the Democratic Party looked like the Republican Party. Partisanship didn’t surge until the Newt Gingrich era. As Newt Gingrich surged, party gained momentum and became as strong as race. During the presidential race of Obama and McCain, the clash of two America became strikingly evident. In Strangers in Their Own Land, we find that the extreme resentment towards urban America rose to an all-time high. This resentment can be traced back to the end of the American dream. This left the rural white trapped in their strong sentiment for the past. Their fear of losing pride made these nice people cling onto white supremacy.
In rural areas, everyone knows each other and barely sees anyone who doesn’t look like them. In urban areas, everyone is used to strangers and diversity. Such distinct understanding led to the hatred of immigration (people they don’t know) — even though they were once immigrants themselves.
Deep Story: Immigration
After the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act were passed in 1965, people called to reopen the golden gate. In 1984, California cut out benefits to illegal immigrants. This made the Republican Party realize that people are uncomfortable with immigrants. Thus, they leaned into this enormous power of immigrant resistance while balancing the need to hire immigrants for low-paying jobs. On the other hand, the Democratic Party wanted to win the States that don’t like immigrants and triangulated along the way.
In Dear America, we see the struggle of undocumented immigrants. They pay taxes through their salaries, but they are excluded from the social safety net. They work hard towards the American dream, but they live at the whim of people’s benevolence. Recently, the Trump Administration has narrowed the immigration pool and made the American dream more distant than ever.
Deep Story: Violence
Ever since the origin of slavery, violence is part of the social structure. Early on, Tocqueville was worried about the urban riots and racial divides. Violence is the primary motif through Huck Finn, Gangs of New York, Native Son and lurks in the background of the urban riot in Jazz and Middlesex. While violence has touched every African American’s lives directly or indirectly, it goes far beyond.
Due to COVID-19, we have seen a statistical increase in people hoarding firearms to protect ourselves. This insecurity can be traced to the rising divide in the capitalistic society.
While capitalism has created a lot of values, we need policies to reform the distribution of wealth. We not only need reallocation but also new opportunities to help more people succeed. Tomorrow I’ll share my takeaways from a class called Reimagining Capitalism.
If you are interested in learning more about the American society, let me know in the comments below. I’d love to hear from your experiences too!